The Amistad Rebellion and its Philadelphia Connection

February 23, 2024 | by David Owen Bell

The story of the Amistad uprising is fairly well known, thanks, in part, to the 1997 historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg. In 1839, 53 West Africans illegally taken from their Mendi homeland were sold at a slave market in Havana, Cuba. While being transported to local plantations on the schooner La Amistad, the Africans freed themselves, killed the captain and cook, and tried to steer the ship back to Africa. Eventually captured by a United States government survey ship, the Africans were put on trial for murder and piracy. In March, 1841, the Supreme Court freed them, but since the ruling did not provide for their return to Africa, supporters arranged a speaking tour to raise the necessary funds.

What is not so well-known is that Philadelphia was actively involved from the beginning. New research reveals this hidden history: local abolitionists raised money for the Africans’ legal defense, the “City of Brotherly Love” welcomed 12 of the freed Africans on their visit in May 1841, a local boy obtained rare autographs that survive to this day, and a portrait of the leader of the revolt rattled Philadelphia’s art establishment and inspired a successful rebellion aboard an American slave ship.

Kidnapping and Consequences on La Amistad

A woodcut by John Warner Barber from 1839 depicting the death of Captain Ferrer. | Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

The citizens of 19th century Philadelphia showed a keen interest in the story of the Amistad and the plight of the Africans—from the seizure of the “suspicious vessel” as reported in the August 31, 1839 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, through the lower court trials, the Supreme Court decision that freed the captives, and their speaking tour to raise money for the passage back to West Africa. Newspapers of the day eagerly covered these events. At its office on N. 5th Street, the Anti-Slavery Society sold 15-cent copies of A History of the Amistad Africans, “commencing with their capture, and comprising of many interesting details, not elsewhere to be found.”

Reacting quickly to the news that the Africans were to be held for trial on charges of murder and piracy, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery held a special meeting on September 11, 1839 and resolved “that every effort should be made to procure for them a fair and legal trial.” The society formed a committee consisting of Isaac Parrish, Thomas Earle, Daniel Neall, Charles Wise, and Wm. C. Betts, and charged it with assisting “any other committee of New York appointed for the same purpose, in the defense of said Africans, to employ counsel on their behalf, collect funds if any be needed, and adopt such other measures as they may deem expedient.” That same week, the Richmond Enquirer reported that “Paul Brown of Philadelphia [had] been engaged as Counsel, in behalf of the prisoners.”

As the case began working its way through the courts, Robert Purvis, a wealthy Philadelphia abolitionist of African, English, and European Jewish descent, commissioned Nathaniel Jocelyn to paint a portrait of Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the Amistad uprising, who by then was known by the Europeanized name of Joseph Cinqué. Purvis was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

Early in 1841, fellow Philadelphian John Sartain created an engraved likeness from the painted portrait and printed hundreds of copies that he distributed to help raise funds in support of the Africans. “A mezzotinto engraving of ‘Cinqué,’ the chief of the Amistad captives, has just been published, and may be obtained at J.S. Earle’s, Chestnut Street, above Eighth,” reported the February 19 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, which called the portrait “bold” and “striking.”

Philadelphians also contributed directly to the Africans’ legal defense fund. The January 9, 1841 edition of the New York Journal of Commerce reported that donations received by Samuel D. Hastings at No. 14 Commerce Street, Philadelphia, included $5 from the Northern Liberties Anti Slavery Society, $26.04 from the Second Congregational Church of Philadelphia, and $40.39 from “Colored people in the Little Wesley Church.”

Visit to the City

Cinqué Addressing his Compatriots, on board the Spanish Schooner Amistad, a lithograph by John Childs published on August 26, 1839. | Image courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

After the March 9, 1841 Supreme Court ruling that freed the Africans, but neglected to provide for their repatriation, the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier printed an appeal for contributions on their behalf. Both the Inquirer and the local abolitionist newspaper, The Pennsylvania Freeman, described a fundraising event on May 12 that reportedly drew an estimated 2,500 people to New York’s Broadway Tabernacle and posted news of the Africans’ much-anticipated visit to Philadelphia later that month.

12 of the Africans―including the youngsters Margru, Temi, and Kali―were due to arrive in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 20, 1841, but were delayed “owing to unavoidable circumstances.” The following Monday the Freeman announced, “It is expected that the Amistad Africans will arrive in the city this afternoon, in which event a meeting will be held in the evening in the Rev. Dr. Wylie’s Church…commencing at 8 o’clock. Tickets 25 cents each can be obtained at the door. Immediately after their arrival, handbills will be posted at the corners of the streets, announcing the fact.”

The Inquirer proclaimed, “We invite attention to the meeting to be held this evening, at Dr. Wylie’s church, Eleventh street below Market, at which the liberated captives of the Amistad are expected to be present. We are also requested to state that a meeting will be held on some future evening for the accommodation of the coloured population of our city.”

Because of the short notice, the first meeting was not as well attended as the ones that followed at the Nazareth Methodist Church on 13th Street near Race Street, Central Presbyterian Church in Northern Liberties, and First African Presbyterian Church on the corner of 7th and Shippen (currently Bainbridge) Streets, which hosted the visitors on May 25, 26, and 27.

“The Amistad Africans arrived from New York on Monday afternoon, and excited no little attention. Some of them are very finely built and possess great physical strength,” reported the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier on May 25 and The Pennsylvanian the following day. “They express themselves as deeply grateful for the kindness that has been shown them, and give animated and interesting accounts of the scenes on board the Amistad. The exercises of the evening were appropriate and well calculated to excite a lively interest in the fate of the liberated captives. Among the most remarkable, we may mention the singing, both in English and Mendi. Kinna delivered an address in English, and contrived to make himself understood, and Cinqué addressed the meeting in his native tongue.”

On May 26, The Pennsylvania Freeman reported: “The meetings which have been held for the benefit of these unfortunate strangers, having been so highly interesting, another meeting will be held for the accommodation of those residing in the northern section of the city, in the Central Presbyterian Church. The avails of the tickets will be exclusively appropriated for their board, clothing, instruction, and return to Africa.”

The Freeman remarked upon the “fine appearance of the Africans, their intelligent countenances, and dignified and Manly bearing,” but noted, “We should have preferred that, in the address that was delivered, there should have been some recognition of the existence of the evil of slavery. Mr. Kirk [a local clergyman] spoke well against the slave-trade on the high seas, but we should have liked it better if the audience had been told that the same trade was carried on in our country, and licensed by our government.”

On May 29, the Inquirer reported on the meeting at Central Presbyterian Church. Mr. Booth, identified as the Africans’ teacher, said that “the desire to return to their native land was their ruling passion. The constant dread of being returned to Cuba had operated on most of their minds, and had prevented them from acquiring knowledge as rapidly as they would otherwise have done.”

One of the Africans, Kinna, reportedly said Booth had told them “when we all learn to read the Bible we shall go home.” Kinna feared that one of the Africans had not learned to read the Bible in two winters and lamented, “If we wait till he learn to read the Bible, we never go home.”

A Rare Souvenir

Autographs of Cinqué and Foole (Fuliwa) by Elwood Evans. | Photo: David Owen Bell

After the Africans left Philadelphia on May 28, their supporters counted a total of $519.31 in admissions and donations, including $283.87 from three meetings at the First African Presbyterian Church and $2.01 “collected by the pupils of the public Colored School,” according to the June 16 Freeman. After deducting expenses, Philadelphia’s Committee for the Arrangement for Holding Public Meetings with the Mendians of the Amistad forwarded $441 to the Amistad Committee in New York.

Also collected at one of the Philadelphia meetings were the autographs of Cinqué and Foole (Fuliwa) by Elwood Evans, a 12-year old boy sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. Written on a 4 by 3 1/2 inch piece of paper, the autographs are followed by a handwritten note that the Africans “visited at Lombard Street School on 5 Mo 27 1841.” The Lombard Street School was one of two public schools for African-American children in Philadelphia. It eventually was renamed in honor of James Forten, the noted sailmaker and abolitionist. Evans went on to obtain autographs of prominent abolitionists, but Cinqué’s is considered the rarest. It is one of just three known to be in existence and the only one privately held.

Cinqué Portrait Fractures the Art Community

A portrait of Sengbe Pieh (aka Joseph Cinqué) by Nathaniel Jocelyn. | Image courtesy of The New Haven Museum and Historical Society

Later that year, Sartain invited Purvis to submit the original painting of Cinqué for exhibit in the annual Artists’ Fund Society show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “The picture was sent, and within the next twenty-four hours I received a letter from…[one] of the managers, stating that pictures of that character could not be placed on the walls of the Academy,” said Purvis, recounting the incident to an Inquirer reporter in December 1889. “Their principal objection to the painting was that its subject was a hero, and they considered that a Black man had no right to be a hero.”

In his letter to Purvis, John Neagle, president of the Artists’ Fund Society, wrote that “the hanging committee” also believed that “under the excitement of the times,” showing the portrait might pose a danger to the institution and its directors. Memories of recent local acts of mob violence against African Americans and abolitionists were fresh in their minds, including the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meeting place that was burned to the ground the night of May 17, 1838, just three days after opening.

Despite significant abolitionist activity, “Slavery was a particularly thorny issue in Philadelphia, where many people had strong social connections to the South and crucial economic ties to slave labor,” according to Sartain biographer Katherine Martinez. “Beginning in the 1830s, mounting social and racial tensions in the city sometimes exploded. The Artists’ Fund Society’s concern that exhibiting Cinqué in Philadelphia in 1841 might put its officers and property at risk was far from unfounded.”

Sartain, Jocelyn, and other sympathetic members of the academy resigned in protest over the decision. “A bitter fight followed between the managers and the seceders, which finally resulted in victory for the latter,” said Purvis. “They returned to the academy when the managers finally yielded and placed the picture on the walls of that institution.” Currently, the painting is the centerpiece of the Amistad Gallery at The New Haven Museum and Historical Society in Connecticut.

The Face of Freedom

The Robert Purvis House, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

When the portrait of Cinqué was not on public display it hung in the Purvis home. The two-story brick house on Lombard Street near 9th, along with Purvis’ later homes, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Purvis estimated that he helped thousands of runaway slaves reach freedom between 1831 and 1861. One of these was a man named Madison Washington.

“We sent him to Canada, but, to my astonishment, on the day that I received this painting [of Cinqué], Washington returned and came to my house and asked me to help him secure the release of his wife, whom he had left in slavery two years previous,” Purvis told the Inquirer in December 1889. “I showed Washington this painting and he asked me who it represented. I told him the story of Cinqué and he became intensely interested. He drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.”

Washington headed south to rescue his wife, but was captured and put aboard the brig Creole at Hampton Roads, Virginia with 134 other slaves. En route to New Orleans, Louisiana on November 7, 1841, as the Amistad Africans were preparing to sail for Freetown, Sierra Leone, Washington led a revolt overpowering the crew and forcing the overseer to take the Creole to Nassau, Bahamas, then a British territory where slavery was illegal.

The British authorities initially imprisoned the 19 participants in the revolt, including Washington, but eventually freed them as they had the other 116 captives despite protests by the United States government lodged by then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The incident sparked a legal dispute that took more than a decade to resolve.

“All this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture,” Purvis told a visitor to his residence at the northwest corner 16th and Mount Vernon Streets in 1889. “Such is the history of the painting of Cinqué, the Hero of the Amistad. It only cost me two hundred and sixty odd dollars, but I would not part with it now for that many thousands. In fact, it is priceless.”


About the Author

David Owen Bell writes about marine navigation, ecology, and history.

One Comment:

  1. Carolyn says:

    Thank you Mr. Bell for this article. I got a slight tingle through my body when I saw the autographed piece of paper from so many years ago of Cinque’ and Foole signatures. I have seen the protrait of Cinque’ in my life time, probably in a book or news article, but do not recall realizing that it was in fact, Cinque’. Either way I know now and will most likely never forget this time. Again, thank you.

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